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dmazella's picture

contexts in contexts

Hi Anne,

I like the Culler quote, and have long treasured a similar observation of his in his introduction to William Empson's Structure of Complex Words, to the effect that contextual readings in Empson do not limit interpretations by restricting them to a single, privileged context, but instead encourage multiple interpretations, by assuming that interpretation always involves choosing from multiple contexts.    In other words, for Empson, contextualizations are not pre-interpretive, but an integral part of the interpretive process. [This is one of the reasons why I leaned so hard on Empson in my own work.]

As for contexts and de- and re-contextualizations, you might be interested in a blog post I did on this subject at the Long 18th, which discussed Peter Burke's very interesting essay on "context."  The money-quote is here:

All the same, the recent interest in the phenomenon of recontextualization or "reframing" is surely unparallelled. 107 In anthropology and sociology, Claude Lévi-Strauss's notion of bricolage and Michel de Certeau's discussion of everyday consumption as a form of production or creativity both depend on the notion of recontextualization. 108 The same concept might be used to mediate in the Goody-Street debate on the contexts of literacy, encouraging a closer analysis of the literacy package, distinguishing between skills that can be "transferred" from the Koranic school to the shop and those that resist adaptation. 109 Rorty goes so far as to describe the whole of philosophical inquiry as recontextualization, on the grounds that (generalizing the point made by Evans-Pritchard about the Azande) "a belief is what it is only by virtue of its position in the web." 110 A similar point might be made about translation.

One might go still further and define originality, innovation, invention, or creativity in terms of the capacity to recontextualize; and this was Arthur Koestler's point in his study of the "act of creation." One of his most telling examples was that of the wine-press, observed by Gutenberg, "lifted out of its context" and employed for a new purpose: printing books. Recontextualization, in other words, is creative adaptation rather than invention ex nihilo. 111 

I was happy to see this acknowledged in Burke, because it seemed to capture the model of de/recontextualization that I had been groping for in the Cynic book: the importance of an active stance of recontextualization.  This to some extent recapitulates the standard distinction between information and knowledge: one is inert, fragmentary, dispersed; the other actively constructed, though not always in a fully conscious or deliberate manner, and it betrays the intentions and purposes of its maker.  This, I assumed, was one of the meanings behind Diogenes' motto of "deface the currency."  

Such recontextualizationis also the distinguishing feature of the pantheon of "philosophic heroes" the book discusses: Diogenes, Wilde, Foucault, though I think there is plenty of room for other once-marginalized writers who attempt to rethink their relation to "traditions" and "communities" and "local moralities." For a start, I'd add Spivak and Butler, though I think there are lots of others.  It's just that these writers gave me something to think with.

As for the visual component of contemporary web discourse, I wonder if the technological transition has simply reminded us of the visuality of reading, which contemporary print culture has forgotten.  Illustrations were once an intrinsic part of the historical experience of book-reading, and equally for both experts and novices, but the expense of illustrations has made them the sole province of children, who less and less visual information in their books in their official curriculum as they get older.  This is a shame, and maybe the web is only reminding us of how much information can be conveyed by such images.



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